Southampton are taken to the wire

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The Independent Online
Crewe Alexandra 2 Southampton 3

Southampton, apparently cruising to a handsome victory at Gresty Road, eventually spluttered into the last 16 of the FA Cup after Crewe came up on the rails in last night's fourth-round replay.

The Premiership side were 3-0 up in 25 minutes and might have doubled their advantage by half-time. But after conceding a goal early in the second half, and another with 15 minutes remaining, Southampton were forced to endure intense pressure before they could claim the dubious privilege of an away tie against one of Crewe's Second Division promotion rivals, Swindon, on Saturday.

Dele Adebola - a 6ft 3in, 13st striker born in Nigeria, led the fightback, and in the 82nd minute sent a header against the woodwork. In stoppage time he saw a similar effort cleared off the line by Simon Charlton. In the dying seconds, Southampton's Richard Hall appeared to handle in the penalty area, only for the referee to intimate that he had already blown for time.

Southampton's domination had been total. Crewe, seeking their first victims from the top section since 1961, were badly missing four injured regulars and, surprisingly for a team managed by Dario Gradi, they were exposed tactically.

In the first meeting, Crewe seized an early initiative. This time the roles were reversed with a vengeance, Southampton scoring from their first corner after nine minutes and repeating the feat 11 minutes later.

Matthew Le Tissier was the provider on each occasion. For the opening goal, a Crewe defence lacking the height of their captain, Steve Macauley, allowed his cross from the left to reach Neil Shipperley beyond the far post. They compounded their folly by backing off Southampton's top scorer as he drilled in his 10th goal of the season.

Le Tissier's next flag-kick, an outswinger from the opposite side, found Hall soaring to head over Mark Gayle's grasp from fully 14 yards. While Le Tissier could not claim an assist for the third goal, Jason Dodd's high, swerving drive from 25 yards would not have looked out of place in the Channel Islander's portfolio.

At that point, Gradi's ploy of deputing Shaun Smith to shadow the South Coast enigma wherever he roamed effectively granted Southampton the freedom of their right flank. Mark Gayle saved well from Mark Walters and Le Tissier, while Westwood slid Shipperley's goalbound effort away.

Crewe, renowned for their purist principles, were uncharacteristically direct in the second half. After surviving a penalty appeal four minutes after half-time when Smith brought down Gordon Watson, they set about discovering why Southampton are floundering near the foot of the table.

Rob Edwards, unchallenged as he headed his 14th goal of the season, planted seeds of self-doubt in the 52nd minute. With Neil Lennon spreading the ball wide at every opportunity, Westwood made them grow alarmingly with a leaping header from a Smith free-kick.

Adebola all but forced extra time, leaving Dave Merrington, the Southampton manager, to savour an escape instead of a romp. "If we'd got the penalty it would have killed them off," he said. "All credit to Crewe - they got a goal and put us under pressure, though it's the first time I've seen them play the long ball."

Gradi, who is likely to lose Lennon to Coventry today in a pounds 600,000 deal, said, "at half-time I told the lads they might as well relax. Get one goal and the fans will be pleased, I said. Get two and anything could happen." It very nearly did.

Crewe Alexandra (4-3-3): Gayle; Unsworth, Collier (Garvey, 68), Westwood, Smith; Lennon, Barr, Collins; Edwards, Adebola, Rivers. Substitutes not used: Pope, Savage.

Southampton (4-4-2): Beasant; Dodd, Hall, Monkou, Charlton; Le Tissier, Magilton, Widdrington, Walters; Shipperley, Watson (Hughes, 80). Substitutes not used: Neilson, Oakley.

Referee: P Alcock (Redhill, Surrey).